Overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed: these are among the top three words used to describe Oklahoma prisons, and despite the Department of Corrections' pleas for adequate funding and staffing, the beleaguered DOC faces additional budget cuts this year.
We have written before of the dangers associated with overcrowded, understaffed prisons. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, coupled with one of the lowest staffing rates and one of the poorest pay rates for corrections officers in the nation. We have written about how " more inmates plus fewer guards is an equation for problems" for inmates, guards, and prison workers including teachers and social workers.
Staffing Issues in Oklahoma Prisons
Last year, prisons were staffed at only 60 percent when the Department of Corrections asked the Oklahoma legislature to adequately fund prisons. The budget allowance only allowed for 67 percent staffing, but the agency has difficulty in finding and keeping prison guards, because of long hours and low pay. Many guards are asked to work 60-hour weeks at a rate of a little more than $11/hour--far less than the average starting pay for prison workers in other states. Now, the DOC has been told to prepare for additional budget cuts, despite a prison population that has increased by more than 13 percent over the last decade. By comparison, the number of corrections workers in the state decreased by 19 percent over the same time period.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton spoke to the Senate Appropriations Committee about the dire need for adequate budget, despite projected state budget cuts of $611 million this year.
Patton called understaffing a "security concern," saying that while prisons are staffed at only 67 percent, prison capacity is at 116 percent--a significant and dangerous gap. Patton told the committee that full staffing would require an additional 857 correctional officers. It would cost the state $3.7 million to pay those officers.
Inadequate funding, low pay, long hours, and insufficient support are among the factors driving the state's inability to adequately staff prisons. But what is driving the increasing prison population?
Oklahoma's Prison Population
It is not, as some would have you believe, an increase in violent crime or better prosecution of violent offenders. Rather, the majority of Oklahoma inmates are in prison for non-violent offenses and drug crimes. Drug offenders are typically spending longer time in prison as a result of tough drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. Additionally, the number of inmates serving longer sentences for 85 percent crimes has increased. With more people being sentenced for minor crimes, and most inmates serving longer sentences than in the past, the inmate population in Oklahoma has exceeded the prisons' capacity.
Last year, a spokesman for Governor Mary Fallin said the Governor was "not concerned about the situation in the prisons," and argued that "staffing is adequate for the safety of Oklahoma." With prisons being asked to face additional cuts, it does not appear as if her opinion has changed.